Up and Tell Jokes
W. James Antle III
22 March 2004
Comedians are the latest group of performers to try their hand at politics.
between celebrity and leftist politics is so well-established that it is
pretty much a given that conservative music fans and moviegoers will end
up admiring performers whose politics they loathe. That is, unless they insist
on only listening to Lee Greenwood (I’m not sure even contemporary Christian
music is exactly a liberal-free zone) and watching Chuck Norris films.
Popular conservative commentator Laura Ingraham wrote a New York Times best-seller about the phenomenon entitled Shut Up and Sing.
Of course, what conservative Republican celebrities lack in numbers they
more than make up for in political success. Arnold Schwarzenegger is
governor of California, the state that sent GOP song-and-dance man George
Murphy to the U.S. Senate and began Ronald Reagan on his path to the White
House. Charlton Heston as head of the NRA had far more practical influence
than either Barbara Streisand or Jane Fonda ever possessed. So the
propensity of entertainers to dabble in politics is not something strictly
limited to liberals.
Comedians are the latest group of performers to try their hand at politics
and have found themselves often treated as credible spokesmen for their causes,
a lofty status that has eluded all but a select few of their celebrity counterparts
from other fields. Actress-comedienne Janeane Garofalo was the public
face of Win Without War, one of the more mainstream advocacy groups opposing
a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Al Franken has been spearheading the effort
to raise the liberal presence on talk radio and has scored a best-seller
with his Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Garofalo has been a co-host on CNN’s Crossfire, representing the left side, while Franken has debated National Review editor Rich Lowry on something like even terms about their respective books.
As someone who became interested in politics because of our first Hollywood
movie actor president – I can concur with author Peter Robinson that Ronald
Reagan changed my life – I am much less bothered by celebrities’ political
pronouncements than many of my compatriots on the right. Granted, occasionally
I find myself thinking it would be nice to listen to a rock group I enjoy
without hearing them denounce me as a misogynistic fiend for not sharing
their enthusiasm for legal abortion, and I must confess to a certain irritation
with the experience of forking over $9 for movie tickets to listen to pampered
millionaire actors lecture me about the evils of my race (white), sex (male),
religion (Christian) and unwillingness to have half my income taxed away
from me to be redistributed to the Third World. But other than that,
if Courtney Love decided to come out and endorse John Kerry for president
tomorrow, I would find myself hard pressed to care.
But there is something that does bother me about the whole trend of celebrity
political activists: It’s just not funny. Even talented comedians tend
to sound like your garden-variety, foaming-at-the-mouth ideological fanatics
when they go on a political crusade. People who believe they can save
the world with a government program in my experience generally don’t have
a very good sense of humor. Something about acquiring this belief later
in life now seems capable of draining away whatever sense of humor people
who are actually funny have.
Nor is this something limited to the left. The thought actually occurred
to me while watching a snippet of comedian Dennis Miller interviewing journalist
Eric Alterman. Alterman is an occasionally interesting but usually
insufferable character who labors under the delusion that his fanaticism
constitutes some kind of iconoclastic intellectual breakthrough. For
example, he argues that there is no liberal media because the media generally
isn’t as liberal as he is (by that standard, I could argue that it is a myth
that “FOX News” leans right). But Miller has been given a political,
as opposed to purely comedic, platform and Alterman was on his show talking
about the Bush administration’s candor and the Iraq war.
Now, it’s no secret I wasn’t much of an Iraq hawk, but Alterman was just
repeating the standard talking points on these questions and I could have
found fault with more than a few of his comments. Yet he at least was
making actual arguments and attempting to engage in a rational discussion.
Miller turned in a petulant and embarrassing performance, refusing to really
debate his guest and at one point just wishing for end of the “f—king segment.”
It was a temper tantrum and, worst of all given Miller’s considerable talents,
not at all funny. Instead of skillfully lampooning Alterman or engaging
in a witty back-and-forth, he alternated between sulking and acting offended
that people with liberal opinions exist.
For the sake of comedy, ideologues should leave their politics out of their
routines. Sure, there is a long tradition of radicalism in stand-up.
Similarly, some people argue that good comedy is inherently conservative.
But this works best when the material is distinguishable from a candidate’s
speech. Comedians are most effective when they have either a healthy
detachment from their subject or a whimsical view of it. Once you have
seriously devoted yourself to a cause, this becomes difficult to achieve.
When Franken talks about what he sees as the dishonesty of right-wingers
he isn’t voicing healthy skepticism; he’s angry. His best material
relied on the ability of people to laugh at themselves, a gift he tends to
lose when his topic is politics.
The same goes for Garofalo, who is an interesting case. Cute without
being attractive in the conventional Hollywood starlet sense (a characteristic
that made the 1996 film The Truth About Cats and Dogs, in which she
co-starred with Uma Thurman, a success), she specialized in the sort of cynical
(in a good way) humor that became popular in the 1990’s. But when she
ventures into politics, she displays a self-righteous shrillness at odds
with her comedic personae and becomes about as funny as the late homeless
activist Mitch Snyder.
Late-night talk show hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno are notoriously
bipartisan in their political ribbing. Similarly, while it is usually
evident that Jon Stewart and others on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show
aren’t exactly conservatives, their lack of stake in political outcomes makes
their ridicule of people across the political spectrum funnier than those
whose comedy amounts to little more than Democratic National Committee press
releases accompanied by laugh track.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any funny liberals or conservatives.
There are also many people who skillfully caricature and ridicule their opponents.
Rush Limbaugh has done this masterfully throughout his career and there are
signs that Franken is groping toward a knack for this type of humor from
the liberal perspective. But note that P.J. O’Rourke and Jonah Goldberg
do not do stand-up. Wit can be a component of political commentary,
but ideology isn’t effective at driving a comedy routine. This distinction
is more important than it might first appear.
But the partisan comics are not to be deterred. It has been reported
that Franken has his eyes on elective office, possibly a U.S. Senate seat,
in Minnesota while Republicans have talked about drafting Miller in California.
Who knows what Michael Moore, that prominent booster of Wesley Clark’s presidential
ambitions, has in store for the unwashed masses of red-state America.
An audience is an audience, and there does appear to be an audience for joke-slingers
moonlighting as politicos and pundits. But if they are looking for
laughs, aside from the knowing chuckles of people who already agree with
them, they ought to consider other subject matter. These comedian-commentators
are just too damn serious.
W. James Antle III is a primary columnist for Intellectual Conservative.com. He works as an assistant editor of The American Conservative magazine and is also a senior editor of EnterStageRight.com.
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